By Steve Brewer, partner at workplace design consultancy Burtt-Jones & Brewer

As sentient beings our physical environment has a direct impact on our health and well-being. When we feel better about the space that we’re in we are happier and more productive in our roles. Our senses connect us to our surroundings and help us make ‘sense’ of our immediate environment.

Looking at the relationship between people and place, before we can even articulate our experiences, we have a reaction to them. Imagine walking into a new building for the first time. You will immediately have formed an impression of how the space makes you feel. Noise, light and air are three of the major contributory factors in creating a healthy workplace in the physical environment.

Breathe in, breathe out

It’s not often that we consider those grilles in the ceiling. The quality of air, whether supplied by mechanical means through ceiling vents or the more direct way of opening a window, play a massive role in health.

Let there be light (and a view)

One of the most frustrating aspects of office design is when you walk into an environment and see that around the perimeter are unused offices, saved for executives who are rarely in the building, or meeting rooms that are not occupied. People who work day-in, day-out at their desks are in the darkened corners or in the centre of the building without any access to natural light, which has a positive impact on their health and well-being. Light is not a benefit that should be awarded to those with status and nor should it be solely the preserve of those having meetings.

The use of natural light also predisposes to us consider the view from windows. In 2003, the Herchong Mahone Group conducted a study ‘Windows and Offices’. In one call centre, workers were found to process calls 6% to 12% faster when they had the best possible view versus those with no view. Office workers report that better health conditions are strongly associated with better views.

Keep the noise down

If you ask any employee about the negatives of their workplace environment, often near the top of the list is noise. The acoustics of a workplace are always referred to, often negatively, in workplace design. The levels of noise in a building can affect our mental state, especially if mental illness is already present. Equally for those who are hard of hearing, a poor acoustic environment will make it more difficult and stressful for them.

Open-plan environments where everyone is expected to work in the same way are contentious. Many businesses dive headlong into designing an open plan environment, without undertaking any research. Sometimes they have seen what others have done and want to leap on the bandwagon without considering the impact of that design on their people, consulting or listening to the views of individuals. Some people work brilliantly in a open-plan office, finding it a stimulating environment that eases team work and the flow of information. For others, they yearn for a quiet space where they can concentrate, free from distractions.

Healthy people

The other side of health and well-being relates to people who work in your office. Working for an organisation that enforces desk use within a culture that takes a poor view of lunch breaks and where every square inch is used by someone working does not engender healthy and happy people. Equally, a culture that encourages a choice in how and where you work will go a long way in contributing to a healthy workplace. Having flexibility and choice within a semi-structured environment will result in people who believe they are trusted to undertake the tasks in hand and that’s a great enabler of employee engagement.

Can I take a break please?

While technology has revolutionised working practices, instant communication and mobiles mean that it’s rare for individuals to take a proper break from work. When was the last time you went for a coffee on your own with just a good book and no phone? Do you check your emails just before going to bed and first thing in the morning? Do you worry if you can’t reply immediately?

Technology contributes to an underlying stress that can impact heavily upon people. If senior people in the organisation are ‘always on’ there is an expectation that everyone, at every level are required to be constantly connected. A culture that permits people to switch off their emails to do concentrated work or that does not expect a reply out of hours, will be stress-relieving for some. However, for others they much prefer to handle things immediately rather than let work accumulate and find it much more disconcerting if they are ‘not allowed’ to work as they want to.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

One of the most common injuries in the workplace is repetitive strain injury (RSI) and technology is partly to blame. According to the Trade Union Council more than 500,000 workers in the UK have reported having RSI and every day more 6 employees leave their jobs because they’re suffering from insurmountable RSI.

Of course, employers are legally obliged to protect their workers but when a culture contradicts the health & safety policy, employees are placed in a difficult position. Usually, like us all, they’d do what needs to be done to keep their job, rather than what they should do to protect their own health and well-being.

Does healthy mean happy?

Being healthy for one person does not mean that everyone will be happier. Take Mark, for instance. Mark works out and keeps fit. When Mark cycles into the office he can have a shower before starting work. He has a choice of spaces and places to do the work that needs to be done and can work from home when he needs to. At lunch-time, Mark picks up some free fruit before heading off to the gym. He then takes some time in the company cafe to catch-up with friends and colleagues.

John, on the other hand, starts his day standing on a crowded train every morning and then transfers to the tube. He arrives holding his extra large triple espresso (as double shots just don’t cut it anymore) and needs to sit at the same desk he did the day before, and the day before that. He wants to leave out his work so he can start where he left off at 8pm last night and doesn't understand this clean-desk-policy. John is a happy person. He’s always smiling and makes colleagues laugh. He’s the go-to person for advice with work.

Mark and John are two different people in the same workplace. What makes one happy does not work for the other. Both of their needs should be met. While it is a challenge, this is why research in the form of workplace questionnaires should always be done at the start of the process.

Remedies for an unhealthy workplace

Creating a healthy workplace and workforce starts at the top. A senior leadership team that puts its people first and cares for their health and wellbeing will mean a more productive workforce that is engaged to deliver success for the company and will stay longer in their roles. To put it in perspective, recent Lessman research found that only 54% of people said, ‘The design of my workplace enables me to work productively’ and 48% said, ‘It’s a place I’m proud to bring visitors to’.

If the organisation is considering redesigning or relocating, the first step should be to find out what their people need before any plans or concepts are drawn up. HR is perfectly placed to gather information ahead of the process starting. This includes understanding the profiles of individuals, teams and departments as well as specific mental and physical health requirements. It’s all about big data and if HR isn’t currently collating this information, they really should be doing so on an on-going basis.

The HR department should work in close collaboration with Facilities Management. A facilities management department that is committed to providing a healthier workplace and is not just about rules and compliance but works to really know what people need to do their jobs effectively make a real difference in an organisation.

Before any plans are firmly fixed in stone, we recommended prototyping ahead of a full scale move. Try and experiment with different ways of working so your employees can experience and interact with a new environment and feedback their opinions.

This is also a useful communications exercise that engages your employees. You can explain the reasons why the redesign is happening and demonstrate that you listen to your people’s views and opinions. Any change is disconcerting and by letting your people feel in control they will feel more secure about their roles and position.

While we know that fresh plants contribute to health and well-being, placing spider plants in the corner of the office won’t cut it. Equally, while people will benefit from a discount on gym membership, there needs to be a culture-change that promotes healthy living and exercise.

Employers need to take responsibility for the health and well being of their people. Yes, it will save companies money. It also saves individuals the human costs of pain, grief and suffering and the Government in terms of health care expenditure. Estimates from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) showed that injuries and new cases of ill health in workers resulting largely from current working conditions cost society an estimated £14.2 billion in 2012/2013.

The benefits of a healthy workplace and a healthy workforce cannot be underestimated. Improved attraction and retention of your people with better engagement and a supportive and protective culture. Improved productivity and relations with your customers, clients and stakeholders. And that’s just the start. So time to look with fresh eyes at your workplace and how you as a business leader and your organisation contribute to the health and well-being of your people and society at large.